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The importance of image

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, September 28, 2006

Eight Halloweens ago, the most popular costume was not that of a witch or a warlock. Instead, it was the guise of a former White House intern – Monica Lewinsky.

Many autumns later, as Americans flock to costume shops for their ‘Superman Returns’ Evil Bizarro latex masks (predicted to be one of the year’s hottest costumes), Monica Lewinsky’s name – along with what she did to earn her place in history – has not been forgotten.

Everyone is known for something. Unfortunately for former President Bill Clinton, his image is inextricably linked to a beret-wearing intern.

In his post-presidential years, Clinton has tried to amend his image in a rather Jimmy Carter-esque fashion.

After Carter’s presidency, it seemed as though he was destined to be remembered as that man from Georgia who mishandled the Iranian hostage crisis. In his post-presidential years, however, Carter highlighted his humanitarian side. Now Carter is known as that man from Georgia who mishandled the Iranian hostage crisis but won a Nobel Peace Prize. Not too shabby.

As for Bill Clinton, he too has tried to highlight his humanitarian efforts, most recently through his Global Initiative program. But few people want to hear about that. After all, now the only impeached president of our generation has also been blamed by some for our generation’s greatest tragedy, Sept. 11, 2001. And that is what people want to talk about.

When Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace asked Clinton about his administration’s failure to kill Osama Bin Laden, Clinton erupted into a rage that will certainly not win him a Nobel Prize – this because he tried to protect what remains of his already-tarnished image.

But what’s in an image? And why was it so important for Clinton to defend his?

You can ask current President George W. Bush (the one who hopes that his image will be forever linked to 9/11, not because he caused the tragedy, but because – in his opinion – he was such a valiant leader in the midst of it) about that one. When his approval ratings sank into the 30 percent range in the spring of 2006, Bush adamantly argued that this wouldn’t matter. He claimed that history would nonetheless remember him as a great president.

And who wouldn’t want to be remembered as great? Who wouldn’t want a Ronald Reagan-esque funeral?

Millions of people watched Reagan’s 2004 funeral on television; it was the smash hit of the summer. Following his death, a plethora of roads, parks and libraries were renamed in his honor. Even during his lifetime, some members of Congress petitioned for Reagan to replace Franklin D. Roosevelt (who was well-liked himself – ranked the third most popular President in the same Gallup poll that ranked Reagan as the most popular) as the face of the dime.

But not everyone can be a Ronald Reagan.

Take seventeenth President Andrew Johnson, for example. He was the first President to be impeached, and that is all that many Americans know about him.

And as for the most well-known line attributed to thirty-seventh President Richard Nixon? “I am not a crook.” But he was. And that is all that many Americans know about him.

Everyone has an image; it is what others remember about you when you fade from their lives. You might be that girl who always wore sandals (even in subzero temperatures), that boy who asked too many questions in class or that president who did a little more than paperwork in the Oval Office. And more likely than not, that image means something to you.

Call Clinton’s Fox News episode what you will – a freak-out, a smackdown, etc. But do not say that in his shoes, you would not have been angry as well. For goodness sake, his image was at stake.

Clinton appeared on the show to talk about his Global Initiative, which has thus far raised millions of dollars to stop climate change, alleviate poverty and mitigate religious and ethnic conflict. Perhaps he is an outstanding humanitarian. Perhaps he hoped for a Jimmy Carter-esque image turnaround, so that people would remember him fondly.

And isn’t that what everyone wants? To be remembered fondly?

But for now, Bill Clinton’s image is that of a red-faced and angry finger-wagger who may or may not have been able to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, and who did, in fact, have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.

I don’t know many people who would want to be him – even for Halloween.

Liz Coffey is a senior American Studies major and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy minor. Her column appears every other Thursday. She can be reached at ecoffey@nd.edu

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.